HANCOCK COUNTY — The cavernous, artistic ceiling and an overall historic charm inside Hancock County Circuit Court make the courtroom an ideal setting for a movie scene — a great place to film a criminal sentencing.
Dave Seiter, a longtime attorney who started his practice in Cumberland several decades ago, has been inside the county courthouse numerous times. He suggested using the local circuit court as the setting for pivotal scenes in an independent movie under production by a filmmaker based in Indianapolis — a movie Seiter has a role in.
After checking out the courthouse through social media to see if it had the right old-fashioned look, filmmaker J.M. Benjamin decided Circuit Court was ideal to depict the mood he was trying to capture in a scene for his first film, “Out the Gate.”
Benjamin, who has studied art history, said the vibe inside Hancock County Circuit Court was exactly what he envisioned when he wrote the script with a scene inside a courtroom.
“I love that older feeling you get when you see the courtroom,” Benjamin said. “In the landscape, you can see the original origins from the early 1900s in that courtroom.”
The movie is based on Benjamin’s book, “Out the Gate” — a phrase used to describe getting something done suddenly or immediately, he said. The film is about a young black man who gets involved in a drug deal gone wrong in Indianapolis and ends up being charged with murder. While in prison the character, based on Benjamin’s life, makes the decision to improve himself and becomes a writer who also reconnects with a woman who becomes his love interest.
“The movie is a redemptive love story about women trying to keep their loved ones from returning to prison,” Benjamin said.
Seiter, who has tried many cases in Circuit Court, was asked to play the judge who hands down the sentence to the main character. After determining Seiter was the person the filmmaker wanted, Seiter immediately thought of the county’s circuit court as the place to film his part and reached out to Judge Scott Sirk, the court’s real judge, to see if they could use the judicial setting.
“Circuit Court is just a beautiful old courtroom, and I thought it would be perfect for my part,” Seiter said.
After getting permission from county commissioners to use the courthouse after hours, Seiter got to play the role of the judge, a treat for an attorney who has practiced law in the county for some 24 years.
“I thought it would be kind of cool to play the part,” Seiter said. “I was a judge in Marion County for three-and-a-half years, so I had the ability to be in that role.”
Sirk said, he had no problem with the video shoot taking place in his courtroom after hours, and he helped Seiter get permission to have his part filmed there.
Sirk joked he has “a face for radio” as for the reason the filmmaker probably didn’t ask him but instead used Seiter and not the courtroom’s real judge for the movie.
“Dave is more handsome than me,” Sirk said, with a laugh.
Seiter was even able to help out with the script. As a former judge and a practicing attorney, he was able to look at some of the verbiage for his scene and make a few suggestions.
Seiter recommended switching things like “manslaughter in the first degree” to just “manslaughter,” and said the little changes like that will make the movie more realistic.
“My wife called me a diva because she said I got the script and was already trying to change it,” he said with a laugh.
Seiter, however, noted there was nothing to change inside Hancock County Circuit Court, a setting that can remind visitors of older courtroom scenes in classic movies like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “My Cousin Vinny,” Seiter said.
Sirk, a history buff in his own right, said the feeling inside his courtroom does not go unnoticed when he’s sitting on the bench.
“We don’t have the upstairs like they have in one of the Hamilton County courtrooms like they used in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ but I do think this is a cool courtroom,” Sirk said.
Seiter believes the movie “Out the Gate,” has a real chance to be seen by a large audience via streaming because he said it has a well-written script with a nice twist at the end.
“I won’t tell you how it ends, but I think it’s a really good script,” Seiter said.
Prior to shooting Seiter’s sentencing scene in the county courthouse, Benjamin and his crew shot several scenes inside the county jail, including in the lobby where the main character calls his mother and asks for money so his lawyer will work to get his charge dropped from murder to manslaughter.
Once finished, Benjamin said the movie will go straight to multiple video streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime, this coming fall.
“They will have the movie premier in Indianapolis later this summer,” Seiter said. “Hey, I get to be on the red carpet.”
Seiter noted Benjamin, who said he was once addicted to criminality, has a desire to give back to the communities where he has family, which includes nearby Indianapolis. Benjamin said he’s tired of turning on the news and seeing stories about young men like himself continuing to make bad decisions, putting them in prison. He hopes the movie will share his message of turning a life around.
Seiter is trying to set up a time with the real judge, Sirk, for Benjamin to come and speak at the Circuit Court Drug Court program and share his story of redemption.